Interview to Akoli Penoukou, author of the book No easy road to survival
How much time have you been writing? Why did you start writing?
I wrote my first novel (an autobiography) just out of High School in 1974 from sheer inspiration and on the lines of Camara Laye’s African Child. I called it The Way It Went. It’s still unpublished. But I have been writing seriously since 1985 after finishing a writer’s course.
I started writing to tell the world about my life, how it had begun brightly but then strangely went awry in 1974.
How should we begin to read this book?
One can begin to read the book from the beginning to the end or choose individual stories since they don’t follow any pre-determined order.
But those who are interested in stories about Family and Love can read: “A Tale of Two Suitors,” “Beyond the Forbidden Borders,” “Gone with the Man,” “An Ancestral Spoke in the Family Wheel,” “Blessed are the Meek and Mild,” “Busy Bee,” “Either Business or Nothing,” “Love One Another,” “Ms Maryann Loses,” “Living in Yesterday’s Bliss,” “I Love Mine,” “If You Have Nothing to Do,” and “The Day I Escaped Madness.”
Those who like stories about Society should consider: “Peacock Color,” “Manna at Last,” “Saving the Mucky Lagoon,” “The Ancestors are not Really Dead,” “Love thy Neighbor,” “Into His Arms,” “Out of the Clouds,” “There’s Always Someone Cleverer Than You,” “Three Troubles One Man,” and “The Odyssey of a Dissident.”
If the reader is politically-inclined, then they should start with: “No Easy Road to Survival,” and “The Three Profiteers.”
Those concerned with African migration through the Sahara land and North African sea routes will be happy with: “Points to Paradise,” and “Treacherous Trail.”
And readers at ease with horror stories will appreciate: “Call the Dead and they’ll be there”.
Which writer or writers have inspired you most as a reader and why?
If you consult the Acknowledgements in the book, you will find a more detailed list of some of the writers who have inspired me. But let me mention only three here from three phases of my life. Camara Laye with African Child not only captivated me in my childhood but also gave me the idea to try writing my first novel The Way It Went (unpublished) as a young adult.Ian Fleming’s On His Majesty’s Secret Service motivated me in my adolescence to start devouring novels. Right now I’m thinking of researching African magical powers to use to write his type of thrillers. Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal influenced me in adulthood because of the very vidivid way he writes like the other two. His short story No Comebacks in his collection of short stories by the same name gave me the idea for Gone With the Man found in my book.
What is the most important thing for you in a book?
The most important thing for me in a book is background (description and setting). It gives substance to the story. As Ron Rozelle said in Description & Setting “The location and time frame of your story is more than just a stage for your characters to tromp around on. In some cases, the setting becomes a character itself. And all of the attendant details—societal conventions, seashores, mountains, regional dialects—determine the overall tone. In fact, if you do it right, setting and description become essential in your fiction. They become the foundation for the rest of your story to build on.”
What can we find in these 28 stories?
In these 28 stories we can find:
The contest between the two most powerful people of an African village—the chief and the traditional priest—for the hand of a priestess;
The struggles of a Jewish woman to save her marriage to a Palestinian on their return to Israel and subsequent move to Gaza;
A man consumed by passion up to tragedy for another man’s attractive wife he yearned for;
A widow pitted against her deceased husband’s nephew for inheritance of the deceased’s property in a matrilineal society;
A poor woman torn between divorce with her wife-beater husband and staying for her children’s sake;
The struggles of a woman to care for her family while her husband idles about;
A man’s fights to make it in self-employment against his family’s wish for a regular job;
A family’s attempts to put up with a drunk relative’s antics;
A daughter’s plans to shove her widowed mother into an old people’s home;
A fashion buff’s efforts to continue her glamorous life although difficult times have come;
A factual piece in which I reaffirm my love for my severely handicapped child on reading that an American couple has had theirs injected to stop his growth;
Tricks by an ex-convict to go back to jail when the society refused to receive him on release from jail;
A woman who ran away from her family for the sake of her budding career as an artist;
A sort of ‘racial’ conflict between autochthonous Togolese and their haughty mulatto families who consider themselves superior because of the light color of their skin;
A guard’s determination to prevent a lagoon from being polluted by the residents;
A fetish priest’s struggles with himself to sell or not to sell the village’s more than 300-year-old ancestral stool;
A businesswoman’s bids to bounce back again after a nation-wide strike had destroyed her family business;
A man’s struggles between worldly goods and converting to Christianity;
A young man’s muses while being deported from France after serving a 15-year jail term for carrying drugs to France in an attempt to get rich quick;
A businessman’s desire to succeed through cheating the customs through under-invoicing;
A businessman’s strivings to succeed using the Internet to find business suppliers;
Fictionalized version of a real story of a Togolese dissident soldier who had to wander all over the world trying to find an asylum;
A village’s never ending battle to survive in Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta Region amidst pollution and lack of basic amenities;
attempts of some paid youths to rig election results in favour of the ruling party;
A single mother’s desire to escape poverty with her two children’s by accepting to work for a political party against her deepest convictions;
The journeys of Africans in their bid to reach Europe through the Sahara desert land and North African sea routes;
Adventures of a Ghanaian civil servant who had abandoned everything to go to Europe through the land route across the Sahara desert;
An African American’s display in America of the skill he learnt in Africa by calling his ancestor’s slave driver.
How did the idea of writing about themes such as infatuation, covetousness, social injustice, greediness and survival?
The idea of writing about the themes of infatuation, covetousness, social injustice, greediness and survival occurred to me by participating in the annual Yeke-Yeke festival commemorating the long trek of my ancestors from now Ghana to present Togo in the 15th century. They also came from reading and listening; from taking note of men’s chauvinistic attitudes in African societies; from personal experience in business and in the society; from associating several events or circumstances; and from my training as a sociologist and from reading anthropological accounts of African societies.
Where have you been inspired to create these stories?
I have been inspired to create “A Tale of Two Suitors” and “The Ancestors are not Really Dead” from the celebration of a traditional festival in my village; “Gone
with the Man” from Frederick Forsyth’s No Comebacks and “Into His Arms” is a sequel; “The Day I Escaped Madness” from a story told from the daughter’s viewpoint which I changed to the mother’s and “Ms Maryann Loses” told from another story recounted from the mother’s viewpoint which I changed to the daughter’s; “Living in Yesterday’s Bliss” from going through a fashion catalogue; “Blessed are the Meek and Mild” and “Busy Bee” from male chauvinism in the Togolese society; “Love One Another” from hangers-on here who abuse the African hospitality; “Beyond the Forbidden Borders” from a real story published in Newsweek, “Manna at Last” from a TV documentary and “I Love Mine” from a TV news item; “An Ancestral Spoke in the Family Wheel,” from the matrilineal system of inheritance of the Asante people of Ghana; “If You Have Nothing to Do,” from a government of Ghana’s civic education slogan IF YOU HAVE NOTHING TO DO DON’T DO IT HERE coupled with the sign NO STOPPING HERE. KEEP MOVING. OFFENDERS WILL BE PROSECUTED at the Bank of Ghana’s premises and the story of an American author whose name I can’t recall and who is a master of stories with twists; “There’s Always Someone Cleverer Than You” and “Three Troubles One Man” from my experience in business; “Either Business or Nothing” and “Love thy Neighbor” from my desire to succeed in business despite my family’s resistance; “Peacock Color” from the haughtiness of the mulattoes here in Togo; “Saving the Mucky Lagoon” from the polluted lagoon here in Lome; “Out of the Clouds” from African youth’s desire to get rich quick; “The Odyssey of a Dissident” from the real story I read in a magazine of a Togolese dissident soldier’s wanderings in search of asylum; “No Easy Road to Survival” and “Three Profiteers” from political intrigue here in Togo; “Points to Paradise” and “Treacherous Trail” from stories of Africans using the Saharan land and North African sea routes to reach Europe; and “Call the Dead and they’ll be there” from families calling their dead in Togo and in the neighbouring Republic of Benin to enquire about the cause of their deaths.
Can you tell us about your writing process? What’s a typical writing day for you?
My writing process can begin with a spontaneous idea. But normally it consists in going through my files for an idea. If necessary, I go to a location or a cybercafé (because I have no internet connection at home) to research the description and the setting. But generally I have these details as well as the character descriptions already in a notebook.
All I do is to go through the many impressions captured and choose those that suit my story. Then I sit down and use a template I devised myself to plan the story from the title through the beginning, the middle and the end.
Needless to say that this plot includes the skeleton of the description, setting, conflict, action, suspense, character traits and descriptions, emotion, viewpoint, the dialogue. I flex out these details during the writing process itself. I write with music (generally smooth jazz) in the background to prevent stress.
Then I putt he first draft aside. In between I create another story. When a first draft has cooled sufficiently I take it out for revision.
Since I do elaborate plotting where the story is almost written out, revision consists mainly in checking punctuation, gramar and spelling. I do two or three revisions.
A typical writing day for me starts at around 6 am but generally 7 am. I write till lunch. After eating I continue until supper. After dinner, I contiue till around midnight. Of course, I don’t follow this schedule on the days I have lectures or when someboy comes to visit becase I have no hidden corner to write.
Music makes this seemingly heavy schedule very easy to bear.
Do you have any new Projects?
Naturally. I’ve been writing for decades now, so I have many short stories and a few book-length manuscripts stowed away. Some are ready for publishing, others must be polished first. As for ideas to be developed into stories and books, I have many. My wish is for this book to sell well so that I can leave my part-time teaching job and devote myself full time to writing.
How would you define your experience with Calíope editorial?
First of all, I thank Calíope editorial for the opportunity to publish my work. This is an opportunity I have been looking for for a long time now.